Humanitarians are increasingly being asked to do more with less. A combination of protracted crises and sudden emergencies affecting populations the world over means that resources are stretched thinner and further than ever before. With demands from the top and the bottom of the supply chain intensifying, the responsibility is falling on humanitarian executives to pick up the pieces and fill in the gaps. Legal preparedness for disasters is an innovation that can help to overcome these issues, enabling leaders to focus more on the mission and less on time-consuming problems that do little to contribute to organisational objectives.

An emerging ‘international disaster law’

In recent decades, international lawyers have been playing their part in responding to the challenges of the ever-changing humanitarian landscape. The result of those efforts is an area of study and practice – international disaster law (IDL) – that is young in its years but mature in its ambitions. IDL seeks – through rules at the international, regional, national, and local levels – to facilitate humanitarian action and improve humanitarian effectiveness. The manner in which IDL does so is complex, but the outcomes are simple: IDL results in faster, easier, and safer aid that leads to greater impact on the ground and better value-for-money for donors.

What does IDL mean for humanitarian organisations?

At the core of IDL is the concept of legal preparedness. Legal preparedness is the notion that governments and humanitarian organisations should be as prepared as possible for the legal issues that may arise in disaster response. The legal issues affecting disaster response are many and various. Issues affect all stages of an operation from planning through to termination:

  • initiating and terminating assistance
  • conducting needs assessments
  • establishing legal facilities in the host country
  • navigating customs regulations for the import and export of humanitarian goods and supplies
  • transporting goods, supplies, and personnel
  • implementing food standards and regulations
  • installing telecommunications equipment
  • importing foreign vehicles
  • prescribing medicine and medical treatment
  • using rescue dogs
  • exchanging currency
  • acquiring visas and work permits
  • hiring local personnel
  • moving freely in the host country or affected region
  • complying with domestic laws
  • ensuring adequate accountability mechanisms
  • co-operating with police forces and military actors

Governments in all regions of the world are beginning to appreciate and foster the links between effective legal preparedness and effective disaster response. Undoubtedly this is good news, but in the absence of a one-size-fits-all approach to disaster mitigation and response the burden has fallen once again to humanitarian executives to understand, implement, and comply with these new rules.

In summary, then, laws and legal systems have a direct bearing on the success or failure of humanitarian operations. When in existence and implemented correctly, legal rules are an effective means of reducing risk, improving response times, and delivering higher quality aid. When absent or implemented poorly, however, legal rules can present barriers to relief that ultimately cost time, money, and lives.

How is legal preparedness for disasters achieved?

Being legally prepared means that headquarters and field staff have the knowledge and skills to be able to recognise and react to legal issues quickly and effectively, and in ways that best serve humanitarian priorities.

Humanitarian leaders should feel confident that they know how to handle legal issues that they and their teams will face. Confidence leads to decisive action that protects staff and volunteers, increases overall impact, and reduces delays in programming.

For most organisations, becoming legally prepared will involve a comprehensive investigation and evaluation of legal issues that are or could be affecting programming, and an assessment of means of dealing with them when they arise. A legally prepared organisation will have plans and policies in place to plan for, respond to, and mitigate the impact of legal problems.

Accessing expertise on legal preparedness for disasters

Until relatively recently, disaster law has been largely absent from academic literature and legal education, so only those who have spent years engaged in original research have been able to develop the requisite knowledge and skills to offer expert advice on these matters. Because of this, large firms generally lack this expertise and even in-house legal teams tend to have gaps in their knowledge.

The problem for most organisations is that the expertise necessary to understand, implement, and comply with the complex rules in IDL is rarely found in-house.

There are thousands of legal rules, and tens of thousands of pages of research and analysis that concerns them. If the responsibility for legal preparedness falls to executives, becoming familiar with this area of law and its developments is usually prohibitively time-consuming and expensive. In almost all cases, it makes sense for humanitarian executives to seek external expertise on legal preparedness. Specialist consulting can be an excellent way of securing that expertise on terms that suit the needs of the organisation.

Camilla Barker-DeStefano

Camilla Barker-DeStefano

Dr. Camilla Barker-DeStefano (Oxon) is a disaster lawyer, author, and founder of the Crisis Academy.

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